The Law is an Ass

A few of you know how I have longed to be able to quote that phrase legitimately, and now I can — in part. When Lord Sumption, a former Supreme Court Judge, told a stage 4 cancer patient that her life was ‘less valuable’ than that of others, I assume he was thinking of legal remedy: younger lives are valued more highly. Unfortunately for him, his remark, uttered in the context of a debate about lockdown restrictions (which he is known to oppose), gave the impression that he was talking more generally. Is one life more valuable than another? That is a very slippery slope down which to travel but there are many racing along it. The old, the sick, those born with physical or mental disabilities, people society rejects as dangerous or beyond redemption, we have cures for all these: abortion, euthanasia, judicial execution and some questionable forms of ‘drug therapy’ in between.

How refreshing, therefore, to begin re-reading chapter 4 of the Rule of St Benedict today, on The Tools of Good Works. The first tool Benedict lists is to love God. The second is not to commit murder (he knew his monks!). Today’s section ends with ‘To prefer nothing whatever to the love of Christ.’ I don’t think any of us could read that passage and come away with anything other than the conviction that whatever God has made is good and beautiful, even if their goodness and beauty is hidden from us. We know we shall never look at anyone God has not first looked at with love. Our human law may be an ass at times but the law of God cuts straight through to what really matters, our existence in Christ. You are valuable. I am valuable. And the scale on which our value is to be measured is not one we can compute.


8 thoughts on “The Law is an Ass”

  1. Wonderful.

    What comes to mind is Jesus telling his inquisitors Render to Caesar what is his. Render to God the things that are God’s, which puts those who refuse to value things from God into perspective.

    In terms of Lockdown by obeying the law, which is there for the greater good, for mutual protection of each other and the resources working to heal us, is in my mind, rendering to God, things that are his.

    Surely we have enough ways of not rendering to God what is his, without adopting another one.

  2. Lord Sumption is right to the extent that the poorest in the UK die on average ten years earlier and suffer twenty times more chronic disease than the richest, if this and the ongoing refusal to do anything to address these health inequalities says anything about Britain it is that some lives are indeed deemed less. #PoorLivesMatter is not likely to trend anytime soon. That said, his clear approval for the logic of assessing the value of lives – sick, disabled, old, poor or otherwise ‘less’ and the patrician disdain with which he treated the campaigner with cancer is entirely the reverse of a Christian outlook which asserts that for all of us God Himself became incarnate and gave His life on the Cross. We are the direct beneficiaries, what greater value could be bestowed on any of us? Everywhere we look, we see people including ourselves assessing the relative ‘value’ of other lives; some who believe that the unborn should die to make way for convenience or career while others appear to love all in the womb and despise most of those who emerged from it; those who believe that black and Asian lives do not matter and those who assert white lives are inherently tainted, privileged and evil; those who believe that the ‘future is female’ and men have no part in it and those who believe that women are lesser creations and that even their womaness should be determined by the views of those first born male. Is it no wonder If the law then which reflects us is a(n) ass? The remedy is, as you have said, at hand, by starting to accept that we shall never look at anyone God has not first looked at with love. May we all, including Lord Sumption, look afresh…

  3. I believe that Lord Sumption went off into very deep waters here! There’s an article in today’s Times Online by Melanie Phillips, in the Comments section, the title of which asks the question “Who is Lord Sumption to decide the worth (sic) of a life?”… which at the last count had received some 1 and a half thousand comments from readers. It is one thing to question what has happened to our democratic system of government and to make known his distaste for the way it has been disregarded and indeed flouted (don’t get me started on the way the PM cancelled last year’s local elections on grounds of covid-19), but quite another to then stray into the matter of whose life is more valuable.

  4. Ah… this is a well-respected ethical decision making process. QUALY’s Quality Adjusted Life Years…. in which a value is placed on the young, the fitter, those with a greater chance of contributing to the economy… I said well-respected, because it is common and a means of allocating scarce healthcare resources (for one thing)… that doesn’t make it right, for all the reasons you say. How much “the NHS” ought to pay for (pick a treatment) depends entirely on whether it’s for you or your loved one! The price worth paying increases exponentially when it’s personal and not theoretical. It is invidious. However, no political party will have the courage to begin the real debate of “we can’t afford everything for everyone – how are we going to decide what NOT to fund”? Political suicide, so QUALY’s will be in the background, informing decisions in a way that makes one want to weep..

    • I think it’s often the hiddenness of the process that hurts people, many of whom are prepared to make big personal sacrifices but don’t like being dismissed as of no value. Who would?

  5. In terms of quality and quantity, there is already a financial choice being made on medications or even surgical or medical treatments as the basis of the CQC process when they explore the costs of providing a new treatment or free for use on the NHS, they make decisions based on the efficacy of such a treatment versus the cost to the NHS on providing it.

    There is evidence of this in many spheres, particularly the refusal for many years to provide expensive treatments for those suffering from Cystic Fibrosis and often rare conditions, which oblige parents to take often young children abroad to places where a treatment, whether experimental or not, is offered. How many fund raising appeals have we seen over the past forty of fifty years by parents or families desperate to have the treatment which might preserve a life or at least make it bearable.

    The lack of these treatments means that human suffering both for the person needing the treatment and their families is part of the calculation, which seems to be ignored and not taken into account in the calculations of the affordability or not of any specific treatment. This isn’t a callous disregard of suffering, but a pragmatic decision made, weighing up the costs and efficacy in competition with each other.

    I can remember the dispute, which is ongoing about the efficacy of Cannabis Oil, which is a way of reducing for some who suffer very severe epileptic fits, but is illegal to provide on prescription. A decision was made to allow prescriptions which could be filled outside the UK, at cost to the patient of their families, but that meant that those who went abroad for that medication, even with a valid prescription were stopped on return to the Uk and it was either confiscated or held by Border force officials, with patients family having to resort to the courts to have it released.

    There is still a ban on it in the UK, meaning that many patients are condemned to suffer as existing treatments currently are unable to assist or control the symptoms causing severe fits, some of which could potentially lead to the death of the person suffering.

    My question perhaps it where should we or do we, draw the line. Do we take the decision that treatment, whatever the cost to the public purse should be provided, which may affect resources available for other, more common treatments, or, do we continue with the current system, which seems to outdates and utterly cruel for those condemned to continue to suffer from ailments not covered by the NHS?

    It is surely a moral decision, and balancing act, made eventually by government on who gets what, as they allocate the resources for the NHS. I for one would be happy to put something onto Income tax to cover the NHS costs, but I am fortunate enough to say this due to my levels of comfort and economic stability, I am not sure that all, people are so fortunate and would resent an increase in their tax bill to pay for it.

    It is a sad reflection on our society that we place people in the position of having to beg for treatment, when the NHS was founded on the principles of holistic treatment for all, not a guessing game or whether any particular treatment should be included or excluded on the basis of affordability.

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